Alligators and southern Florida just go together. On our last day in southern Florida, we have come to the Everglades National Park to hike their trails and see their alligators.
At the Visitor Center, we are directed to hikes some 40 miles south through the park to Flamingo on the Florida Bay coast. Checking out the Everglades movie before heading out on another 80 degree January day, we hear the volunteer say, Despite what the film will say, alligators do not go 30 miles an hour. Stay back and you’ll be fine. Alligators are nocturnal and they are not interested in you as a meal. Now a little kid who gets too close; that is another matter. No matter. I’m just fine seeing a gator from our rented car.
Created in 1947, Everglades National Park was created to save the Glades; not a swamp, but a freshwater River of Grass flowing from Lake Okeechobee south to the southern tip of Florida. Considering that 800 people move to Florida each day and 39 million vacation visit each year, the Everglades needs all the protection it can get. In the last 80 years there has been a 93% decline in wading birds nesting in the southern Everglades.
After four days of mellow biking on the flat lands of the Keys, Hannah will today test her healing left leg on the level hiking trails of the Everglades. Though there is a coral base to the land, the terrain is grassy with soft dirt.
Driving some 35 miles to our first hike to the Christian Point trailhead, a 1.6 mile one way hike to Florida Bay, we park at a parallel pullout off the main road. At 10A and 78F on this mid-January morning, there are no other cars. Perhaps, this early hour is the reason for the scarcity of hikers; we will soon find the real reason why.
We quickly learn the true meaning of “slogging,” commonly used in these parts for hiking on the squishy, muddy trails of the Everglades. In no time we must step aside into a newly flattened grass trail that allows us to circumvent the mud.
The scratchy dry grasses hit our legs with each step, and we are not happy campers. As fairweather hikers anyway, it is again apparent that we will never hike the entire Appalachian Trail. We catch no hiking rhythm and walk single file through the narrow trails avoiding more mud pretending we are having a good time.
In a mere twelve minutes, we say no mas and turn back. The Everglades are going to need to step up its game to earn our four star trail rating. Thankfully we saw no gators.
Back in the car, we read of the Guy Brackett Trail based near the Flamingo Visitor Center and head further south. This modest one mile trail skirts the coast; it is for people unaccustomed to hiking and who, in fact, are just out for a stroll. You cannot call it a hike and naming it a trail is stretching it. Paved and handicapped accessible, it is a break from Everglades slogging.
The winding trail takes us to an extensive campground along the bay. Tents and trailers dot the area and we now know where you go if you want to really get away. With no cell service for at least 30 miles, the area is a little too lonesome and isolated for us. Though there are many senior citizens there, we are batting .000 in seeing alligators.
The odds of spotting gators go up dramatically here. Sunny and warm, the pond trail has us spotting white herons and osprey but no alligators.
Clearly disappointed by our hikes so far, we wonder why bother coming all this way? We have one final hike before we return to our motel in Florida City, some 12 miles from the park entrance.
The Snake Bight trail: a cute play on words, for a bight is a small bay, in this case on the edge of the massive Florida Bay. Six cars are parked in the pull out, which makes us hopeful that we will find a trail sans mud. In turns out that this trail is as straight as an arrow and our first steps are on terra firma.
It seems this trail was built by the oil tycoon Henry Flagler in 1920 as he was trying to dredge the Everglades. Politicians of the time promised to “drain that abominable pestilence-ridden swamp.” To our left is the dredged soupy channel while we hike the trail that is beautifully canopied by mangroves; a welcome change after today’s sun filled hikes; that is welcome news for Dan, a bummer for Hannah. As with all our other hikes in Everglades this January, there are no mosquitoes at all; we catch an excellent hiking rhythm, which turns out to be 3 mph. Hannah, not quite six months from major surgery for a compressed and fractured tibia, cruises along without a hitch.
The 1.8 mile trail one way is wide enough for two or three people abreast and as always in Florida, LEV-EL. Thirty five minutes later we arrive at a board walk that extends into the mudflats with the Bay in the distance. Nary an alligator, but a wonderful hike.
The jury is out if that is truly a gator, but I’m pressing, grabbing at straws as our trip to the Everglades is coming to an end.
And then as we leave the park, I see my blessed alligator, albeit at the Visitor Center.